What Elements Make Cantonese Speakers English Language Essay

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In Hong Kong education system, English has been included as a main subject same to Chinese for many years. It is a pity that most Cantonese speakers still find it difficult to pronounce native-liked English after learning ten or more years of English, however. The reason is mainly because when speaking a second language, most Hong Kong people are used to hearing and making sounds which only exist in their mother tongue (i.e. Cantonese). Before figuring out how to pronounce native English, Hong Kong people (Cantonese speakers) should know the difference between English and Cantonese in terms of phonology. It helps them to avoid speaking English foreign-sounding and understand the key to pronounce native English in their English speaking.

In this essay, I will mainly focus on the phonological difference between English and Cantonese, weak forms and the linking in English.

The phonological difference between English and Cantonese

All languages have their own sound system. The sound system of English is unfamiliar to Cantonese. Firstly, the consonants and the vowels in English and Cantonese are different where Cantonese does not have some of the consonants and vowels in English, so Cantonese speakers find it difficult to pronounce some of the English words. For instance, in English, there are consonants such as //, //, //, /t/, /v/, /z/ and /r/ which are not appear in Cantonese. Cantonese speakers find it difficult to pronounce the consonant // and // because they are inter-dental. Besides, they may be confused by the palatal-alveolar consonant // and /t/ as /s/ and /ts/ are alveolar in Cantonese. For the consonant /v/ and /z/ are articulated exactly like /f/ and /s/ in Cantonese. But /v/ and /z/ are voiced while /f/ and /s/ are voiceless. Cantonese speakers always feel confused between /l/ and /r/. The main difference between /l/ and /r/ is that in making /l/, the tip of the tongue touches the roof of the mouth, but in making /r/, the tip of the tongue is slightly curled back and does not touch any part of the roof of the mouth. For instance, Cantonese speakers always pronounce "the"/i:/ into [di:], "she" /i:/ into [su] and "roll" /rl/ into [l].

Cantonese speakers tend to say only seven of the eleven vowel sounds in English clearly. The main reason for this is that in English there is a difference between long and short vowel sounds.

In Cantonese, the long and short a are distinctive in closed syllables, e.g. san 'new' vs. saan 'hill'. The distinction applies equally to diphthongs containing a sounds: thus, gai 'chicken' with a short diphthong contrasts with gaai 'street' with a long diphthong (and the same tone). The actual difference in length depends on the syllable. The long vowel in Cantonese may be no longer than a short in English. The two vowels also differ in quality: short a is similar to the vowel of English cut, while long aa is more open, like that in father. But note that the different in vowel quality is not found in diphthongs as in gai 'chicken' and gaai 'street'. (Matthews & Yip, 2002, p.18)

The long vowels in Cantonese are still shorter than that in English. It may be the reason why Cantonese speakers are not able to say the remaining four vowels in English clearly though Cantonese has long vowels. With the unseen English consonants the different vowel length between English and Cantonese, it is understandable that why Cantonese speakers do not articulate English natively.

Secondly, the phonotactics in English and Cantonese are totally different. Phonotactic refers to the sequential arrangements of phonological units which occur in a language. (Crystal, 1991, p.263) It is the restrictions that govern possible sequences of sounds and it also defines permissible syllable structure, consonant clusters and vowel sequences. The syllable structure in English is CCCVCCCC. There must not be more than three and four consonants in the onset and the coda position respectively. // never appears in the onset position and /h/ never appears in the coda position. On the other hand, Cantonese has a relatively simple syllable structure: the possible combinations of sounds are severely restricted. There is no consonant clusters occur, hence syllables typically have the form CVVC. Moreover, only two sets of consonants can appear at the end of syllable which are /m/, /n/, //, /p/, /t/ and /k/. (Matthews & Yip, 2002, p.19)

English allows more than one consonant appears in the onset and coda position while Cantonese does not allow. Also, Cantonese speakers are not familiar with the consonant cluster such as the initial [br-] of "bread", or the final [-st] of "best". So it is hard for Cantonese speakers to pronounce the English words by facing different phonemes and phonotactics.

Weak forms and Linking

Although there is a difference in pronouncing English and Cantonese, there are also some important elements in speaking English natively which are the power of using weak forms and the connected speech in English.

English words can be pronounced in two different ways which are strong forms and weak forms as English is a stress-timed language. Weak form is the reduced form of a word and those words are monosyllables. Most weak form words in English are function words and discourse particles. The vowel used in a weak form is mostly the schwa []. The others are [] and []. For examples, "to" /tu:/ will be reduced to [t] or [t] (vowel reduction) and "and" [nd] will be changed to [n] (deletion of consonant). But there are no such weak forms in Cantonese, Cantonese speakers may not be able to say "to"/tu:/ into [t] in their English speaking naturally. Therefore, the "all-strong-form" pronunciation in Cantonese speakers makes their speech unnatural and foreign-sounding.

Linking is included as one of the phenomena in connected speech which refers to spoken language when analyzed as a continuous sequence, as in normal utterances and conversations. (Crystal, 1991, p.73)

In real connected speech, English words are linked in special ways. The most familiar case is the use of linking r and the use of intrusive r. In linking r, the phoneme /r/ does not occur in syllable-final position in the BBC accent, but when a word's spelling suggests a final /r/, and a word beginning with a vowel follows, the usual pronunciation is to pronounce with /r/. For example: 'here' /h/ but 'here are' /hr/ and 'four' /f:/ but 'four eggs' /f:r egz/. In intrusive r, BBC speakers often use /r/ in a similar way to link words ending with a vowel, even when there is no "justification" from the spelling, as in: 'Formula A' /f:mjlr e/ and 'Australia all out' /strelir :l t/ (Roach, 2008, p.144)

Besides linking r and intrusive r, there is also linking which does not include /r/. For example, "take it" /tek t/ becomes /tekt/ and "think about" /k bt/ becomes /kbt/. Since Cantonese is spoken word by word and there is not much linking. It can also be explained by phonotactics of Cantonese .Although /k/ appears in the coda position in Cantonese, it will not link to the word after it as /k/ is unreleased consonants at the end of a syllable. For example, "cute" /dk ji/ will not become /dkji/. Therefore, Cantonese speakers are not used to use linking in their English speaking. Without the linking, their English speaking is not native compared to native English speakers.


From the above explanations, it shows that the different sound system and the way of speaking (connected speech) make Cantonese speakers pronounce and speak English unlike native English speakers. With the phonological differences between English and Cantonese, Cantonese speakers will not able to pronounce the RP (Received Pronunciation) English words easily. Also, there are no weak forms and there is not much linking in Cantonese, so it is difficult for Cantonese speakers to use the weak forms and the linking in their English speech. In order to speak like a native English speaker, second language learners should pay more attention about their English pronunciation and also learn how to make good use of connected speech.